It is no secret that the overdose crisis has hit Philadelphia and the surrounding areas particularly hard. With some of the nation’s highest drug-related fatality rates, it is crucial to approach this crisis from many angles. One of the most important, yet often ignored angles, is that of the bereaved survivors who have lost their loved ones to this crisis.

Few communities have taken a step back and thought about how they can support these individuals that are left to pick up the pieces and expected to continue their daily lives. Philadelphia has dedicated resources and supports for these individuals. Laura Vargas, MSW, LCSW, Philly HEALs’ founder, shared her thoughts on Philly HEALs’ foundation, growth, and goals moving forward below.

Philly HEALs, which stands for Healing and Empowerment After Loss, is the Bereavement Care Program from the Health Department’s Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction (SUPHR). The program exists in partnership between SUPHR and the Medical Examiner’s Office to offer free bereavement support to those that have lost a loved one to substance use in Philadelphia. Although Philly HEALs did not get its name until 2021, it has existed since 2019 and has been steadily growing since.

In just under four years, the program has served over 4,000 bereaved survivors of loss due to substance use in Philadelphia through a variety of grief support services. Philly HEALs has expanded from offering direct services to individuals to also organizing larger-scale community engagement events, such as the Pop-Up Overdose Memorial Garden. Philly HEALs has also placed an emphasis on working with internal and external City partners to apply lessons learned from bereaved survivors to the City’s harm reduction efforts. Individuals served by the program have credited it as being a crucial lifeline during the most difficult of times.

Ms. Vargas’ thoughts on the amazing growth of Philly HEALs can be found below.

For those of you who may not know our history, the foundation for what is today known as Philly HEALs was laid in 2019. I initially began my role as a Bereavement Care Coordinator for the Medical Examiner’s Office. Although the Medical Examiner’s Office has offered professional bereavement support to families for over ten years, this was the first position dedicated to providing support to those bereaved by the overdose crisis. As I began working and imagining how we could better serve the community, clients began to trust and open up to me and our internal and external partners began supporting me and championing this cause, and that is what paved the way to become an institutionalized and sustainable program.

Fast forward nearly four years and we now have 5 full-time clinicians, an MSW student intern, and countless internal and external partners. We have served well over 4,000 individuals through our bereavement outreach, peer support groups, psychoeducational workshops, one-on-one grief counseling, community engagement events, and more. You have spread the word so that we are not only reaching people through our partnership with the Medical Examiner’s Office, but people are also finding us themselves. We have consulted to and served as a model to jurisdictions around the country looking to provide support to those bereaved by this terrible crisis.

It has been the honor of my life to develop and lead this program. I am inspired each and every day by our clients and by my colleagues. I thank everyone who has supported me throughout my time in this role. It is a tremendous privilege to do work that feels purposeful and is truly enjoyable each day. While it is time for me to say goodbye as I leave the City of Philadelphia, I cannot wait to see the many wonderful things that Philly HEALs will continue to do.

For questions, contact Philly HEALs Program Manager, Kaitlin Worden, MSW, LSW at (267) 239-1958 or Kaitlin.Worden@Phila.Gov.